Victorian Sex Workers

By Lucy Mainwaring-Parr.

From London Labour and the London Poor: Volume Four by Henry Mayhew.

Late Victorian Britain provided a setting for a moral panic surrounding sex work due to the recent increase with venereal diseases in the British army. This resulted in increased criminalisation of sex workers; both in law and in the art, literature and news of the late 19th-century.

The criminalisation of women is a distinct process. Criminal women are subjected, in academia and through societal understandings, to misogynous stereotypes which define the narratives surrounding this group of ‘others’. Criminalised women are doubly deviant; as both women and as criminals. 1800s criminological studies into criminal women claimed that women were lured into crime by stronger-willed men, or entered into sex work due to a lack of love, thus ignoring the socio-economic contributing factors. This article will address Victorian publications and culture which focus on the characterisation and fate of the prostitute, belonging to the popular ‘cultural narrative’. 

Whilst sex work has never been illegal in the UK, the acts surrounding sex work have become increasingly criminalised. In the 1860s, the British government introduced the Contagious Diseases Acts, the legislation of which increased restrictions on sex work. These acts helped turn the cultural fears surrounding prostitution and venereal disease into law through way of moral politics. As a result, sex workers in naval towns were forced to undergo physically invasive acts to check for venereal disease. Sex workers were also forbidden from operating near churches, universities and army barracks for fear of tempting trade. British society saw prostitution as the ‘great social evil’. In France, similar legislation sought to address societal fear for the protection of public morality and protection of male prosperity, alongside the need to protect the nation’s health. The most popular academic to examine the criminalisation of sex workers within Victorian culture is Corbin, who noted the five key images of the sex worker: 

1.         The prostitute as a child who does not accept or understand respectable adult values.

2.         The prostitute as lazy and unwilling to engage in legitimate work.

3.         The prostitute as a symbol of disorder and improvidence.

4.         The prostitute as a source of disease and contagion; and

5.         The prostitute as a lower-class woman, bound to the physical needs of upper-class males. 

Corbin explored how inter-related discourses i.e. police, hygienists, municipal authorities and the judiciary came together to organise the regulation of prostitution. The subsequent government acts legitimised such prejudices and labelling towards sex workers and, during the late 19th century, the practices of sex work were transformed into a criminal activity. 

Such societal fears can be observed within the popular discourse of the era; art, literature and the media, which may have inspired an increase in regulation of sex work. Rosenthal’s (2008) study of narratives in literature surrounding Victorian sex work identified two main discourses: reform and libertine, which act as a warning to others and tell of a downward spiral from comfort. Most sex worker narratives warn men about being snared by a prostitute and warn female readers about becoming a sex worker. Furthermore, Corbin notably outlined the core popular images of sex work in France, focussing on: the prostitute as the ‘putain (whore)’ who had poor hygiene, the image of the prostitute linked with death, prostitutes embodying the venereal disease outbreak and the image of the working-class woman as both ‘the Martha and Mary Magdalen’. Most sources from this period present the narrative that young, innocent women are lured into sex work and, following this fall into vice, are then on portrayed as old, ugly and dishonest. 

The populist narratives surrounding Victorian sex workers, as observed within literature, art and the news, provide a fascinating insight into the cultural fears of the era. These fears were then acted upon by the powerful institutions of late 19th-century Britain, who consequently criminalised the behaviours and habits surrounding sex work, thus criminalising the workers.

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